Adam, Eve, Jerry and the Theologians …

So, Jerry Coyne is doing theology again, this time talking about recent attempts to reconcile the doctrine of original sin with evolution, particularly the fact that there were not two humans who were the ancestors from which all humans were spawned. The problem is that when Coyne engages in anything like theology or philosophy of religion, he’s spectacularly bad at it. Which, since even he admits he doesn’t know anything about those fields, is to be expected. I just wish he’d stop pronouncing on it.

So, what’s he on about this time? Well, as stated above, it’s about Adam and Eve and original sin. The key here is that the doctrine of original sin is what’s used to justify Jesus’ sacrifice, and it seems to require a literal interpretation of Genesis, or at least a literal enough one to insist that there had to be an actual Adam and Eve who had to do something bad — ie sin — for it to be in place. Jason Rosenhouse took this on, and Coyne decided to pile on.

Now, first, someone that I’m somewhat acquainted with has, in fact, actually proposed a way to justify the sacrifice without needing that literal an interpretation. You might have heard of him, too. So, you might imagine that I’m going to be just a wee bit unsympathetic to attempts to force that literal an interpretation on the story, especially from those who claim that theology is bunk and garbage. But let me move on to what Coyne actually said.

I’ve written about this several times before (here, for example), for the story demonstrates not only the clash between science and religion (a clash that accommodationists say doesn’t exist), …

No, they don’t say that … at least not with the implications that Coyne relies on here. They do not claim that there is never any possible clash between any doctrine or claim of science and any doctrine of claim of religion. They claim that there is no inherent clash between science and religion, that science and religion can be compatible. The most extreme of them say that science and religion ought to be made compatible, and attempts like this are, in fact, attempts to do so. And attempts to do so by — wait for it — adapting their religion to scientific fact. And this is somehow worthy of derision.

I’ve commented, I think, on this catch-22 before. If you’re like a YEC and deny scientific fact, you’re demonstrating that science and religion are incompatible. But if you decide to accept scientific fact and adapt your religion to it, you still demonstrate the clash between science and religion. But the latter is an uninteresting one; it is indeed like saying that there is a clash between philosophy and science if, say, any philosopher of mind changes their theory of mind to match modern neuroscience. And Coyne sees this as a competition:

… but also the victory of the former over the latter …

But … why are we viewing this as a competition for one side to win and the other lose, especially in reference to accommodationist strategies that adapt religion to scientific fact? If you are a religious incompatibilist and insist that religion has the right way and science is wrong, then having to accept scientific fact might be seen as admitting a loss. But if you, say, held that both science and religion are ways of knowing, whence the competition? If they really are both ways of knowing, shouldn’t we accept that sometimes one will know something the other hasn’t yet? Coyne can ask — as Rosenhouse does — what these doctrines bring to science, but the reply to that is simply: why in the world would you think that the doctrine of original sin should lead to scientific results? Unless you take Genesis literally, it’s a morality play, not a scientific treatise.

Anyway, moving on from that:

As Jason shows, that shows the real difference between science and religion: science discards ideas when they fall to pieces; faith tries to cobble them together into something that still convinces gullible believers . In the end, nearly all scientific ideas can be falsified, while most religions ones can’t—for their falsification simply leads to reformulation in a newer and less falsifiable incarnation.

Well … someone needs to learn a little philosophy of science.

Start with Kuhn, who demonstrated that science, in the real world, does not abandon theories that fall apart all that quickly, and certainly not on the basis that the theories fell apart. If you find massive empirical evidence against a theory, its adherents will … try to patch it up, often in more and more ludicrous ways. So, then, how do theories fall out of favour, finally? When all the people who teach the undergraduates and all the up-and-coming scientists are those who accept the new theory, as those who accept the old theory retire out of active service. Ultimately, it’s an authoritarian and conformist method to replace old theories … and one that isn’t available to religion. Why? Because no matter how conformist or authoritarian a religion is, if you introduce a doctrine that the people don’t accept they’ll simply splinter and form their own religion. It’s a lot harder to do that with universities.

The other thing is that it isn’t clear or objective when an old theory gets updated or dropped. As I learned way back in philosophy of science, there doesn’t seem to be much of an objective difference between phlogiston — which died — and electricity — which was adapted. Both seem to have required a radical change in interpretation to be accurate, but that happened for electricity and not for phlogiston. Why? We really can’t say; there seem to be a host of subjective factors involved.

So, no, science isn’t actually all that much better at dropping theories when they fall apart (in little pieces on the floor, too wild to keep together so you want it more). But we don’t hold that against science. Why hold that against theology? Especially when the main reason that philosophy and theology don’t generally completely lose theories is that they don’t have the conformist mechanism of science to impose it.

So, now, Coyne gives his take on the two theories. First, Domning’s:

How can original sin be the result of differential replication of genes? Where’s the “sin” in that? It’s a purely passive phenomenon which involves no decisions, no actions on the part of individuals. Why does that merit punishment and salvation through Jesus?

He’s insisting that in order for it to count as “original sin”, there must be an act to be made up for. Of course, as seen earlier, I’m not in favour of that interpretation, and note that if one does not take Genesis literally — as any religion that’s trying to reconcile the doctrine with science is almost certain to not be doing — then there’s absolutely no reason to think that there being a specific act is anything more than artistic license. In that case, you can appeal to human nature, applied through one very specific action: moral agency. Domning and I may not agree on this, but Coyne’s objection here is forcing an interpretation on the doctrine and story that is not the one available and likely is not the one Domning is using. Thus, Coyne has to argue for that insistence. He doesn’t; he simply judges Domning by his interpretation … an interpretation that even he himself admits is uninformed. Nice.

Further, doesn’t Domning realize that “selfish gene” is just a metaphor for differential replication of genes, which can be thought of as acting as if they were selfish, but are not in reality selfish themselves (shades of Mary Midgley)? Maybe the faithful aren’t so good at recognizing metaphors after all.

But there’s an issue here, which is that genes and natural selection work entirely on benefit to the organism. Acting on benefit can indeed be seen as being selfish, and can be seen as the hallmark of the natural world. The natural world itself cannot be selfish in that sense, because it isn’t itself cognitive and isn’t an agent. So it squeaks by. But if we took that direct notion from the natural world and tried to apply it literally, we would indeed be selfish. If we, as conscious agents, chose to act in ways that benefit us, we would be selfish. Would this mean that naturally, we’re selfish? I’m not convinced of that, but then I find the notion of the “Selfish Gene” somewhat less than helpful too.

But of course the big mistake here is that “selfish genes” don’t always produce selfish behavior: they can also produce cooperation if that behavior benefits the propagation of the alleles that produce it.

Someone needs to read Hobbes. See, what he’s saying here is that “selfish genes” can produce cooperative behaviour … if it benefits the organism. That’s still selfish. If you do something cooperative only because it benefits you to do so, that’s not altruistic or unselfish. It’s still selfish, as Hobbes pointed out.

Now, Domning may well be making a mistake in presuming that what happens at the natural level can be said to be human nature, and Coyne would almost have a point if that’s what he was trying to say. But that isn’t what he said, and what he said is plain wrong.

The fact that Domning thinks this is a serious response to the Adam and Eve problem shows the complete intellectual vacuity of theology. It’s even worse because Domning is a professor of paleontology at Howard University, and should know better!

So … a response that a paleontologist thinks is a good theological response is an indicate of the complete intellectual vacuity of theology? Isn’t that like saying that if a philosopher makes a really terrible defense of evolution then it shows that biology is intellectually vacuous? Shouldn’t we really be judging a field by what people in the field are saying more than people who are amateurs are saying? This, then, is a completely unfair charge, and it is Coyne who should know better.

Now, onto the second attempt, this one by Feser and others. And Coyne’s reply is:

If souls and sin are transmitted vertically, from parents to offspring—as suggested by the hypothesis above—then we should still see a two-person genetic bottleneck some time in the past, tracing back to those two lucky individuals who won the soul lottery. We don’t see that.

Moreover, all the genes of every living human should “coalesce” back to the same time and the same two people.

Let’s start with the last one first: why should all the genes “coalesce” back to the same time and the same two people? Only the genes that impact “the soul” would. Have we traced back every single sequence to see if every relevant one traces back to two people or not? Now, here I might be getting out of my depth, but again it doesn’t seem to me that all the genes are at issue here. It’s like saying that if, say, blue eye colour was introduced in one couple first it would have to be the case that all genes for all other traits would have to coalesce back to them as well. Which is absurd.

Additionally, for any trait that requires mixing genes, it is almost certainly the case that the fully-formed trait will appear in one or two organisms first. Why? Because that’s how these things have to work; you have to have an organism that picks up the traits from two different parents and is the first one to have both of them in the same organism. You can get some spontaneous mutual formations, but for the most part any new trait that requires a combination of two precursor traits will exist in a small number of organisms first, just because of the random association part. So that contention not only seems to miss the point, it also seems to contradict how things have to work out.

This also misses out that there are different ways to pass traits from parent to child, including informative, cultural and behavioural. Feser, I think, wants a more direct intervention from God, which Coyne ignores. So insisting that the passing down has to be genetic isn’t an insistence that he can make, especially since the quote from Feser implies that he isn’t talking about genes.

The fact that rational and intelligent people can’t see through the ruse here—that religion isn’t a process of finding truth, but of rationalizing, post facto, hopes and ideas that one pulls out of thin air—is perhaps the saddest aspect of faith in America. It is just so bloody obvious.

Considering how badly he distorted the actual claims and his ignorance of how science reacts to theories that fall apart (in little pieces on the floor, too wild to keep together, so you want more, yeah), I don’t think I’d take that “it’s so obvious” all that seriously.

And the guilty ones here are not so much the credulous believers who are fed this kind of pablum, but the theologians who get good salaries for making this stuff up, and who have the temerity to label themselves “sophisticated.”

But … isn’t one of Coyne’s claims that what sophisticated theologians say is not what believers themselves believe?

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One Response to “Adam, Eve, Jerry and the Theologians …”

  1. What we need theology for … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] I don’t think that we lose anything important by taking the Adam and Eve story as a metaphor a… But I might be wrong about that. There’s a lot of theological work to do to figure this out, […]

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